The book next to the one you thought you needed

“If a library is a mirror of the universe, then a catalogue is a mirror of that mirror.”                 – Alberto Manguel

all photos from

all photos from

One of the best parts about exploring library shelves is discovering unexpected gems – finding a book that you didn’t know existed, you didn’t know you needed.  It can change the course of your research, it can introduce you to a new favorite author, it can unsettle you in strange and wonderful ways.

The Warburg Institute, London

The Warburg Institute, London

This is the philosophy behind the Warburg Institute in London.  Aby Warburg originally created the library in Germany based on his personal collection before moving it to London with Fritz Saxl (see for more information).  He believed in the “good neighbor” idea: that the information you want isn’t found in the book you are looking for, but the one next to it.

Warburg in Florence, circa 1900

Warburg in Florence, circa 1900

This creative thinking led to the unconventional classification of books in the Warburg Institute.  Instead of being organized by traditional numerical or alphabetical systems, Warburg organized his library, as many of us do, by his interests. The Institute follows this method in its aim to promote connections.

Here is its categorization scheme:


As the website explains, the system, “structures culture and expression under four large categories, image, word, orientation and action (corresponding to the four floors of stacks above the reading room)….  Its detailed organisation makes inspired connections between different fields of endeavour and study. Readers’ access to the open shelves of the library leads them to books which they would not otherwise find, while the unique arrangement of the sections enables them also to make more intuitive connections.”

As libraries are in the process of redefining themselves in this electronic age, I think that the philosophy behind the Warburg Institute serves as a good reminder: there are so many fun and creative ways to reconsider how we categorize information and books.

Next time you’re in a library, pick up the book next to the one you want.  You never know what you’ll find…

(information and photos from Warburg Institute website: 


95 thoughts on “The book next to the one you thought you needed

  1. I don’t thrive on research, but there are truly few things as enjoyable as wandering a bookstore or library, browsing through books.

    Your post reminded me that I’ve become a bit too dependent on my Kindle, and I need to go experience that feeling again. Nothing like a really old book, with its “old book” smell.

    • There is something so exciting about browsing a bookstore or library, I agree, Stan. Not knowing what you’ll end up finding. And those smells, yes, those smells – irreplaceable!

  2. I ignore the Amazon/Goodreads/pretty-much-every-webby-thing recommendations. “If you enjoyed this, you’ll enjoy this.” Our desires and likes are far more intuitive than logical. This library approach seems to attempt to bridge both approaches. Interesting.

    • You’re right, our preferences often don’t seem logical at all. You never know how connections between ideas and books will be made. (sometimes I have trouble seeing the connection between the book I just bought on Amazon and their following recommendation though – seems like a random leap at times. It’s fun to try to figure it out!).

  3. I found one of my favorite books this way, by accident because it was next to something else. It is The Green Years by A. J. Cronin. It isn’t a familiar title but such a great book.

  4. Very interesting! I’m forwarding this to my husband, who is a librarian. I still miss card catalogs, because I used to love to explore neighboring books by having a wander through the index cards in the vicinity of my target book.

    • It’s true that the card catalogue was a great way to find unexpected treasures, Naomi. Certain titles would catch our eye and we would think,”Hmmm, I wonder what that one’s about. I’ll have to look at it.” Thank you for reminding me of that. I still remember the texture of those cards too, the softness from being handled often.

      A librarian husband – delightful!

  5. I really appreciate the “new releases” displays in the library where things are a little more haphazard. I also peruse the stacks of books being returned and the ones on hold for other patrons. You never know when or where you might find a gem!

    • I agree, Jilanne, the idea of unexpected connections is great. In part, at the root of creativity. Unfortunately, I wasn’t a member of the Institute when I lived in London so have never visited the library but I try to be influenced by the philosophy behind it.

  6. I can just see the sparks when certain books collide in the library. Imagine, for example, finding Richard Dawkins’ “The Selfish Gene” next to C.S. Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” (in the Religion, Science section), or Norman Mailer next to Gore Vidal (in the Language and Literature section)!

    • Exactly, Tom!! You could be one of the Institute’s librarians! This categorization is such a wonderful fuel for creative connections and unexpected ideas. I wish more libraries experimented with ways to organize their books.

  7. And in fiction, sometimes the alphabetical organization of the books is unexpectedly funny, like when Fifty Shades of Grey is shelved beside The Portrait of a Lady. (the authors are both names James).

  8. You know how much I love libraries! Thank you for this insightful post. Knowledge is for everyone and is not only for the “intellectual elite.” I am more interested in the transformation that occurs with knowledge acquisition. With knowledge comes compassion, understanding and a desire to seek positive outcomes for all! You have given me much to think about!

    “I don’t believe in colleges and universities. I believe in libraries because most students don’t have any money. When I graduated from high school, it was during the Depression and we had no money. I couldn’t go to college, so I went to the library three days a week for 10 years.”
    ― Ray Bradbury

    • I knew this post would appeal to you as you love libraries so much – it’s true, libraries are repositories of knowledge and universities (and universes) unto themselves!

  9. I think my local bookshop knows about the ‘good neighbour’ idea; every time I go in there I come home with 3 or 4 more books than I intended to buy because the one next door, or the one just across the way, looked interesting too.

    • That’s the mark of a good bookshop, I think: one that encourages you to buy books you wouldn’t even have considered buying. Not just from a commercial standpoint, of course, but from a reading one. Sounds like you have a great one there!

      • Yes, it’s quite a good bookshop 🙂 I guess online bookstores like Amazon use the Good Neighbour principle too. Isn’t it funny that I get very cross with the supermarket for arranging their shelves to tempt me to buy what I don’t want , but, when a bookstore does the same, more or less, I am perfectly content 🙂

  10. Been a while since I’ve read a post on your blog 🙂 This kind of organization is sorely needed. So often I find myself in libraries aimlessly walking down the aisles simply going on the font and design of the cover (unless I know what I’m looking for of course)

    I guess this way makes it so much easier to discover new stuff, whereas the alphabetical way is just good for locating something you already know about.

    • It’s good to hear from you, Alap – it’s been a while since I’ve posted and I’m still catching up on all my blog reading!

      You’re right, while the traditional categorization is practical when tracking down a book you know you need, it doesn’t really work for encouraging creativity and development of new ideas. Upon reflection, I do the same as you, looking at the font and design of book spines, but that is so limiting really.

  11. I like this idea that intuitivity (yes, I just made that word up) can be used as an organizational tool. So often I feel like I am so unorganized, only to find out that my way of organization doesn’t exactly look like everyone else’s. And I also love roaming through the stacks and pulling out random books…now I’ll have to pull out its neighbor as well!

    • You’re right, Virginia; it’s as if Warburg is celebrating the personal creative chaos that we all tend to use to organize our own thoughts, books, papers. I hadn’t exactly thought of it in those terms.

  12. This reminds me of the day I came back to my school library after a day away on a course to discover that my nine year old ‘librarians’ had reorganised the fiction section for me. “We’ve shelved them alphabetically,” they proudly told me. Somewhat bemused, given that I thought they were already shelved alphabetically, I went to investigate. Sure enough they were ordered just as the girls claimed – alphabetically according to the authors’ first names!

    • What a funny story!!! It must have been interesting to see what books ended up next to each other (and it must have been a lot of work to put them back in order…).

    • I think creative people like yourself naturally do things like this – follow their intuition and feel comfortable stepping outside the lines. That’s why I love the idea that a library can be set up in this way: so that it encourages everyone to do it too!

      • Came back to visit this one again and it reminded me about the fun of going to libraries or bookstores and seeing all of the ‘to-read’ books 😀 I haven’t been to a library in ages (usually getting my books online instead) but I really must!

        • Thanks for visiting this one again Christy! Buying books online is quite a different experience isn’t it? It is fun but allows for less spontaneity and personalization of the store or the library.

          Am enjoying your book reviews on your blog by the way!

  13. I like this idea. I purposely shelve my books at home randomly, so that when I’m hunting for one, I see all kinds of other treasures I’d forgotten about. But I’ll be honest – it gets frustrating. It sometimes takes forever to find the book I set out to find.

    • A personal treasure hunt- what a good idea! Discovering lost gems within your own collection and making unexpected connections among your own books and authors.

      Although I know what you mean. My books eventually get out of order and make them hard to track down which can be a bit frustrating at times!

  14. This is a wonderful approach for choosing a book – but not recommended for asking for a date (unless you aim to wind up on daytime television).

    My books are arranged tallest to shortest, regardless of genre.

    And I’m guaranteed to get distracted trying to find something that way.

  15. I’ve never heard of that good neighbor idea – love it. Now I need to wander through a library or book store again. When looking through those shelves, sometimes it feels like the books choose you instead of the other way around. Those usually end up being the best books.

  16. Books unsettling people in a good way…I like that. We sometimes become complacent in our ordering of books and liking to see different sorts together, a certain amount of randomness is good for the soul methinks. There should be no such thing as tunnel vision where libraries and bookshops are concerned…unless walking past the ‘erotica’ section.

  17. I love books. Beyond the words and the images, the feel and smell of paper. Oh! The sheer thought of curling up with a book in an easy chair is something that remains unmatched in my mind in terms of the sheer pleasure that it gives.

    Increasingly though I get these fears that the web, the kindle and their inheritors are most surely killing the book as we have known it all these years. A tragedy of enormous proportions indeed. As this comes to pass, how do you see libraries morphing? Or for that matter would they even exist in the way we have come to know them?


    • That’s a great question, Shatki. I wonder that myself. Like you, I prefer a real, tangible book but I’m not sure what the future holds (for books as objects). It may be that they will become rare, like music records, and libraries will become community centers – hubs to gather information in various forms and not only in book form. We shall see.

      In the meantime, I will, like you, happily curl up with my book in an easy chair!

  18. I guess I like the Dewey system because of its order. As for fiction I would despair having my favorite authors feathered all over the place due to their varying genre intrests. I prowl recommendations all the time. And shelf serendipity is one of the best ways to find a new-to-you book companion.

    • Shelf serendipity (I like that phrase) is such a great way to find a new book, you’re right. And the Dewey system would possibly still work with the neighboring book philosophy as one could find interesting connections between the authors paired alphabetically even if they aren’t paired with their subjects in mind. Either way, it’s fun to think about!

  19. That is a lot of information and I will plan and visit this place. In some ways, the library that I have at home is arranged according to my interests and people have a hard time finidng books there. Research is strange. The more I do it the more do I relaize that it is like walking through a maze because in the last four years my research has taken me through all sorts of stuff that I wouldnot have thought about when I started it. Love reading about books… will come back again. 🙂

    • Research is sort of like a maze, good point. But one with alternative paths that also lead to the end. That’s what makes it such an interesting, and often unexpected, process.

      Thanks for dropping by and commenting Manu!

  20. Hello Letizia! How interesting, I am going to the library today will pick the book next to the one I want, who knows what I will find. Sometimes I just grab a book that I have not ever heard from, I just listen to this voice and I do it, it’s like the book calls me does that happen to you?

    • I completely know what you mean, Doris. Some books do call to you – something about the cover or the location in the bookstore or library…..

      I hope your art exhibit went well last Friday!!

      • I sold a painting the night of the opening, but I am super tired, I miss my books the most ;), I did read but not like I wanted.

        • That’s great that you sold one the first night, congratulations! You must be exhausted but so happy! Soon you will be able to rest and read quietly again…..

  21. I always loved the idea of organization on the basis of liking and disliking. We arrange our clothes and shoes according to the above means of organization. Why can’t we do so with our books? I follow a simple but effective method of organizing my books (and music): Keep the book you read most recently at the very last of the stack. That way, when you’ll reach that book after reading the books before it, it’ll appear newly-read! 😀

  22. What a clever set-up. It’s almost analogous to an online piece of writing where one link takes you to something else, and on that new page, another link takes you to yet another place, and so on and so on. Of course, one can get so caught up in the reading that ten minutes quickly becomes an hour. 🙂

      • I remember when I used to be able to go to the library and just browse. I had no specific books in mind but would leave with armfuls. Now when I go, it’s to pick up a book I’ve reserved or one I want to read based off a recommendation. Gone are the days when I had all the time in the world to just sit and read. Those days ended just before my first high school job. 🙂

        • armfuls of books, I like that! I’m lucky in that I spend time in the library for work (I’m a prof.). But even just dropping in to pick up a book can be fun as your eye can catch a glimpse of something new – it’s like being in a candy store!

  23. Interesting concept and one that’s appealing to me! It would make libraries fun! Unless of course one is trying to make a deadline …then it may (or may not) get frustrating…but you know…maybe not. Hmm..

    Couldn’t help but notice that the picture for the structure of the book arrangements of the institute is a mandala shape ..which is awesome!

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